A Flag And Signs Of Separatism In India

Blur of a Karnataka flag.
Blur of a Karnataka flag.
T.M. Veeraraghav

NEW DELHI — In the uproar over the southwestern state of Karnataka"s decision to have a separate flag for the state, New Delhi-based television channels warned that the move was a threat to national unity in India. Meanwhile, Bengaluru-based Kannada-language channels largely hailed the move, as simply a worthy symbol of Kannada pride.

This latest example of the cocoons that hinder both journalism and India as a whole, depending on where people are looking from. This is not about patriotism or about being Indian, but about a disconnect in understanding India between the capital of New Delhi and a southern city, Bengaluru, which is currently ruled by the Congress party that was unseated from national power by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Let's set aside the fact that the flag began purely an electoral gimmick. The reactions and emotions the decision evoked is substance for a deeper analysis.

It's not clear at what time in our independent history reiterating a linguistic identity became inconsistent with the identity of being Indian. Linguistic division of states was implemented in 1956 purely to recognize fiercely-independent linguistic identities, especially in south India.

Until the early 1960s, states like Tamil Nadu had openly raised secessionist demands, but those years gave way to a new and powerful India where a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam could assert to be Tamilian and Indian.

Through the seven decades as a nation, the idea of India as a conglomeration of diverse cultural identities had matured to mean that both a regional or linguistic identity can co-exist with a national identity. States have their official song, bird and emblem — and one state deciding to have a flag is no different.

Photo: Hari Prasad Nadig/Flickr

A Congress-ruled state government deciding to have a flag for Karnataka is a reassertion of a linguistic or state identity. It's a challenge not to the idea of India, but a mere political counter to the forceful use of Hindu nationalism by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "If you portray yourselves as champions of India, we will portray ourselves as champions of Kannada..." is all that it means.

The reason it's a strong counter is that Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) as an idea aims to create a homogeneous national identity, thus electorally uniting the various sections of Hindu society and achieving power in the process.

The moment linguistic, regional or caste identities are evoked, there is a division in the electorate and hence a threat to the BJP's ability to capture power. The debate has to center around ‘Hindu versus non-Hindu" for it to achieve electoral consolidation. This is why the BJP has accused the Congress of "divisive" politics when caste or linguistic issues are brought up.

Even though Karnataka has been ruled by national parties, the love for Kannada and rejection of Hindi are strong sentiments here.

But in this fierce portrayal of the Hindu nationalist narrative, revolving around one leader as the champion of the nation, the plurality and space for the expression of other identities is lost. Further, the language of Hindu nationalism is largely Hindi, the language the prime minister delivers his speeches in, and the crux of the perceived threat to south Indian languages is the imposition of Hindi.

This is perhaps the reason the BJP, or Modi's brand of politics, has not been able to make decisive inroads into large parts of south India, like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where linguistic identities demand that the idea of India be seen as one of co-existence. Much of the Hindutva onslaught is lost in translation. It might have found resonance in small urban sections and among upper castes, but has not been able to impress the electorate by and large.

Coalition-era politics, over the last two decades, has further strengthened these linguistic identities. Even though Karnataka has been ruled by national parties, the love for Kannada and rejection of Hindi are strong sentiments here.

While the state flag decision has been questioned by BJP's national leaders, there is a studied silence from their counterparts at the state level. The problem for the BJP seems to be that with its nationalist onslaught, it's not able to balance or defend its regional identity.

Linguistic chauvinism is not a new trait in India, it has only found a new position as the Congress's counter to BJP's Hindu nationalism in Karnataka.

So while people may question it as another jingoistic political exercise to woo the electorate, or even challenge it as not being secular, to see the Karnataka flag as a threat to India would mean seeing the idea of India through a BJP prism. The constitutional idea of India has matured, and is firm and strong in the state of Karnataka, no matter which party wins or how many flags fly.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!